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Germany's fiercest environmental battlefield

Ruth Krause, Anne-Sophie Brändlin
August 13, 2015

An energy company is clearing an ancient forest to expand Germany's largest coal mine. Activists are fighting back, living in the trees and chaining themselves to excavators. Almost 800 were cited in recent protests.

Braunkohletagebau Hambach Schaufelradbagger
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gambarin

The fight over the Hambach Forest in western Germany resembles a David and Goliath story. On one side, barefoot young activists, living in caravans with no money and surviving on food donations, are fighting to save the forest, and on the other Germany's second largest electricity producer, RWE, is trying to clear it.

RWE operates the country's largest open-pit lignite mine at Hambach, providing nearby power stations with its coal. But that coal sits under the ancient "Hambacher Forst" and to get to it, the trees have to go. Eighty percent of the area has been deforested since the 1970s when it officially became RWE property. Now almost all of the remaining forest faces the chop.

This has turned Hambach Forest into a battlefield. In a bid to stop the mining, around three dozen activists have set up camp there to watch over the trees. Some are willing to act illegally - by chaining themselves to the coal excavators or trees - despite the threat of prison. RWE says these activities cause noticeable financial losses for the company.

Protestors shut down plant

On Saturday (15.07.2015), roughly 1,200 lignite-mining opponents occupied an excavator in the adjacent Garzweiler mine. During the action, RWE cited security reasons in shutting down its conveyor plant. The police said that 797 activists were cited. They face charges of trespassing, disturbing the peace, weapons violations and disturbance of a public company.

Late Sunday night and early Monday morning following the excavator blockade, activists chained themselves to the tracks of the "Hambachbahn," a private RWE train line used to transport lignite from the coal mine at Hambach to nearby power stations. The protest stopped train traffic.

Such actions had been planned far in advance. An activist spokesman criticized police behavior as gruff and abrasive, while a police spokesman said the officers only did what was necessary to protect the compound.

'It's important to show resistance'

Two of the activists challenging RWE are Mori, 25, and Mila, 19. They love the forest but have a particular fondness for Mona. Mona is the 250 year-old tree they illegally occupy. The activists live in a tree-house 16 meters up that is only accessible by a thin, dangling rope. They hope their presence will stop the heavy machines from doing their work.

Photo: A tree-house (Source: Anne-Sophie Brändlin)
Environmental activists live in the trees at Hambacher Forst to protect themImage: DW/A.-S. Bändlin

"The coal mine is one of Europe's biggest CO2 polluters so it's important to show resistance and make a statement," Mori says. Mori, like the other activists, is worried about CO2 emissions from coal but they are even more concerned about the fate of the forest.

It's not just any forest or mine

Cutting down a forest will always have a negative environmental impact. Trees cool down the planet, store carbon and, therefore, mitigate climate change. But environmentalists also argue that Hambacher Forst isn't just any forest - it's 12,000 years old and is rich in biodiversity. The forest is home to 142 species important for conservation, including Bechstein's bat and several other bat species, according to German environmental organization, BUND.

The thought of all this vanishing, frustrates the activists.

"What makes me sad is that all this here is just happening for the sake of profit," says Mila. "While a few people earn a lot of money, the whole surrounding suffers. But if this forest is gone, it's gone forever."

Photo: Mila and Mori chained to a tree. (Source: Anne-Sophie Brändlin)
Mila, 19, and Mori, 25, want to stop the rest of Hambacher Forst from vanishingImage: DW/A.-S. Brändlin

But the mine is also important for the local economy, says RWE. Around a quarter of Germany's electricity comes from lignite. The Hambach coal mine alone produces a 5 percent share of the overall power mix, according to the energy firm. It provides employment for more than 1,300 permanent staff at RWE and another 700 jobs with partner companies, says Hermann Oppenberg, deputy director of the coal mine.

"The activists want us to stop our operations immediately. But we cannot do this. This would produce unemployment rates in high numbers, and nobody wants that," Oppenberg tells DW.

A polarizing fight with no end in sight

The Hambach controversy has had a polarizing effect on surrounding villages too. The mine has swallowed some towns entirely - including Formula 1 racing star Michael Schumacher's former home.

Fearful that this could happen to their villages too, some inhabitants support the activists. Shops and locals donate food and supplies. But others value the mine's economic benefits over its environmental impact. If the mine goes, so will the jobs, they fear.

With such polarized opinions, an end to the David and Goliath stand-off is nowhere in sight. Backing down does not seem be an option for either side. In fact, the battle has heated up over the past three years. RWE has accused the activists of turning violent against the company's staff, while the activists say the same of the police and RWE-employed security.

Photo: A picture of Morschenich, Germany. (Source: Anne-Sophie Brändlin)
Morschenich, a village that was moved to make way for a coal mineImage: DW/A.-S. Brändlin

Officially, RWE has the right to mine at Hambach until 2040 - and the company has not shown any intention of ending operations before that. Oppenberg says lignite is still a necessity.

"Our welfare state depends to a large proportion on cheap energy supply. And lignite contributes to this supply in a stable and secure way," Oppenberg says.

For Mila, Mori and the other activists, going back to their old lives is not an option. The police have arrested them or forced them to leave more than once, but they always come back. That's because this battle is not just about a forest, but about fighting a way of life based on exploitation and hyper-consumption, says Mila. She wants a different kind of society where coal is no longer needed and people live in harmony with nature.

"We're not just here to harm RWE. We want to show how things could be done differently," she says.